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Alaska governor loses subsistence rights appeal
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Filed Under: Law | Politics

An Alaska Native subsistence rights case that Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, appealed was rejected by a federal court on Tuesday.

In a unanimous decision, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to overturn federal approval of a subsistence moose hunt in rural Alaska. The Cheesh-na Tribal Council won the right to expand its traditional and customary hunting area before the Federal Subsistence Board.

Palin's administration challenged the board's approval in hopes of limiting where tribal members could hunt. But the 9th Circuit said the evidence strongly favored the tribal council, whose leaders intervened in the case with the help of the Native American Rights Fund.

NARF attorney Heather Kendall-Miller represented the tribe and its president, Larry Sinyon. She cited the case in a widely-read critique of Palin that has been circulating in Indian Country ever since the governor was selected by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) as his running mate.

"Palin's attack here has targeted (among others) the Ahtna Indian people in Chistochina; and although the federal court last year rejected this challenge, too, Palin has refused to lay down her arms," wrote Kendall-Miller and her husband, Lloyd Miller, another prominent Native rights attorney. "The battle has thus moved on to the appellate courts."

McCain supporters have dismissed the charges as unfounded. In an interview with Indian Country Today, Ken Johns, the president of the Ahtna Inc., an Alaska Native regional corporation whose shareholders are affected by the case, said Palin was only trying to protect the state's interests.

"She inherited these cases, and I'm not surprised she didn't just drop them," Johns told ICT.

Palin's Republican predecessor, former governor Frank Murkowski, initiated the challenge to the Federal Subsistence Board's decision in 2005. But it was Palin who took the case to the 9th Circuit -- after a federal judge issued a final judgment in June 2007, her administration filed the opening brief with the appellate court in December 2007, a year after she took office.

With subsistence a hot political issue in Alaska, it's not unheard of for the state's top executive to become personally involved in litigation. In 2001, former governor Tony Knowles (D) stopped the state from taking a significant Native rights case to the U.S. Supreme Court after meeting with Katie John, the Native elder at the heart of the dispute.

"We must stop a losing legal strategy that threatens to make a permanent divide among Alaskans," Knowles, who remains popular among Alaska Natives, said at the time. "I believe Alaska must do everything it can to protect, not fight, the subsistence rights of rural Alaskans."

Knowles unsuccessfully ran against Palin for the governor's seat in 2006 and tried to make her lack of experience with Alaska Natives an issue in the campaign. After Palin canceled a meeting with Native executives, she acknowledged she didn't "know enough" about the issue.

"I didn't know enough about tribal government and we did not have time to do all the research to give the subject its due," Palin told The Anchorage Daily News in October 2006.

McCain supporters have noted that Palin's husband, Todd, is Alaska Native but his heritage doesn't appear to have brought about any major changes in the state's tumultuous relationship with Alaska Natives. State Republicans have long refused to accept the federal status of the more than 200 tribes in the state and they funded lengthy battles against Native subsistence rights.

Last year, Palin appointed a Native subsistence rights opponent to an important state board. She relented only after Native groups complained. A Native person was appointed instead.

The Palins are at the heart of an investigation into the firing of Walt Monegan, the first Alaska Native to serve as public safety commissioner. Todd Palin refused to testify before a state legislative panel that was created to look into the matter.

After firing Monegan, Palin appointed someone who was the subject of a sexual harassment complaint. That candidate withdrew amid controversy and she ended up appointing a Native person to the post.

9th Circuit Decision:
Alaska v. Federal Subsistence Board (September 23, 2008)

Related Stories:
9th Circuit decision in Alaska subsistence case (9/23)
Opinion: McCain-Palin 'old school' on Indians (9/23)
Turtle Talk: Sen. McCain and future of Indian law (9/22)
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Probe of Alaska Native official's firing awaits testimony (9/18)
Campbell: Gov. Palin supports Alaska Natives (9/17)
Gov. Palin attacks Alaska Native official's work (9/16)
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